The Impact of Stress Hormones: Balancing Survival and Health in the Modern World

May 29, 2023

Martin Kuchynka

Stress hormones, both ancient and modern, play a crucial role in human survival and development, but in today's constantly stressful lifestyle, they can lead to chronic health issues, emphasizing the importance of managing stress for overall well-being.

What we'll talk about

Stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline played a crucial role in human survival and development, mobilizing our ancestors to face dangers and secure food. They thrived in a balanced state, where stress was occasional, allowing rest and digestion to predominate. However, modern life constantly bombards us with stressors, from workplace tensions to dietary habits and biochemical toxins. This chronic stress disrupts hormonal balance, affecting digestion, immunity, and mental well-being. Recognizing the signs of cortisol dysregulation, such as energy fluctuations, sleep problems, and resistance to body transformation, is essential in today's stress-filled world, as it's increasingly linked to various health issues, including diabetes, mental illnesses, and cancer.

Understanding the Significance of Stress Hormones

Cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, as the main stress hormones that encourage us to flight or fight in dangerous situations, we can basically thank for the survival of the human species, and therefore our development to the present day.

If it weren’t for them, our prehistoric ancestor would have responded to the call of hunger by simply nihilistically lying by the fire, until he finally died of exhaustion, or rather, nothing would have forced him to run away during a clash with a wild predator, and thus he would have very quickly become a lower link in the food chain.

However, this ultimately did not happen, as cortisol and catecholamines mobilized him and gave him the energy and drive to go hunting and get food, or to escape from the reach of an enraged animal.

At the same time, it was typical for such a caveman that he lived a very peaceful life, due to which he only got into a state of high stress, associated with the release of the mentioned stress hormones, from time to time during a fight with predators, during hunting, sex and consolidating his social position in the group. 

This allowed our ancestors, similar to what we observe in other animals in the animal kingdom, to spend most of the day in a mode of rest, relaxation and digestion, when the active part of the autonomic nervous system is referred to as the parasympathetic.

Such a regime, where a person is at rest for most of the day (and the parasympathetic system is activated) and stress hormones (and the sympathetic system) are released (activated) to a greater extent only for a short time and suddenly when necessary, is a natural state for us in accordance with the rules of nature, when all hormones and health are in balance and stress hormones are only fulfilling their important purpose of energizing and mobilizing.

At the same time, the current hectic lifestyle of Western civilization, associated with constant rushing, stormy emotions, poor quality sleep, unhealthy eating and electromagnetic and information pollution forces us, thanks to a steady supply of stressors throughout the day, to do the exact opposite: To function in sympathetic dominance mode.  

Negative effects of sympathetic dominance on health

Thus, a new development link of the human race is created: A person primarily functioning in a stress mode, without his organism being adapted to it, which results in chronically increased secretion of cortisol, which in the long term leads to disruption of all health systems.

Digestion is restricted and food intolerances are more common: Due to the fact that people remain in sympathetic mode even during meals, the quality and efficiency of digestion (and absorption of nutrients) decreases, and the body has a greater tendency to react to consumed nutrients as a threat, and thus create antigens against the nutrients in food, resulting in hidden food sensitivities and intolerances that appear more and more often.

The activity of the immune system decreases (cortisol is immunosuppressive) and thus creates more space in the body for the negative effects of toxins and the emergence of disease.

Adrenal glands are overloaded, which first manifests as energy fluctuations during the day, then as sleep disturbances, and ends with adrenal burnout and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Hormonal balance is disturbed, when long-term excessively elevated cortisol suppresses the synthesis of sex hormones (thanks to the fact that they share the same precursor with cortisol) and at the same time participates in the emergence of insulin resistance and thyroid dysregulation, which manifests itself first as resistance to body transformation and subsequently as the onset of disease.

Neurotransmitter balance is disturbed, when a deficit first occurs in calming and then activating neurotransmitters, which reduces cognitive performance and creates the ground for the emergence of behavioral and personality disorders or the emergence of neurosis (anxiety, depression).

At the cellular level, the cell outer layer is disturbed, the permeability for toxins increases, the energy charge of the cells is disturbed.

At the intracellular level, there is a negative epigenetic effect, when protective genes are switched off and pathological genes are switched on, where the most typical example of this disorder is cancer growth.

These epigenetic changes, although they are reversible, can persist within our genetic makeup for up to three generations, and sympathetic dominance therefore negatively affects not only us, but also our future descendants and their children.

Stress is all around as

While our ancestors faced great but only occasional stress, modern man is overwhelmed by acute and chronic stressors essentially all the time. Just think, what is hidden under the term stress for you?

For some people, just going to a job they hate is stressful. To work, where his superior is constantly yelling at him and his co-workers laugh behind his back. For another, just the thought of the approaching state party can be very stressful, even though they are still two months away.

Going to offices or doctors, where you wait in endless queues, as well as time spent in traffic jams and waiting for public transport, especially when you are in a hurry, can be stressful for you.

You can consider going to the gym and hard training according to a template that you hate as stress, as well as your current effort to lose weight, when on the one hand you are denying yourself all the good things, but on the other hand you still have to think about food all the time: Shopping for groceries, weighing them, cook, eat and then clean up.

The night journey home through a deserted street can be stressful for you, but so can the need to appear in public in front of a large audience. You can experience stress at home if you don’t get along with your parents or partner and argue, as well as outside when you are unhappily in love with someone and he doesn’t love you back.

And last but not least, you can experience stress when you or your loved ones are sick or worried, as well as when a child is born and you are overwhelmed with worries in the first months. And so we could go on forever.

As you can see, stress can take a thousand and one forms, different for each of us. The common denominator of all the mentioned examples is that it is psychological stress, the sources of which emerged only in recent years as a result of changes in our society: What was not stressful a few decades ago is now.

And that brings us to the causes of sympathetic dominance in the form of stressors that burden us every day and together contribute to cortisol dysregulation:

Causes of sympathetic dominance

Acute psychological stress

Acute psychological stress occurs mainly in those situations that arouse in us fear (whether conscious or repressed), aggression (such as for example, an argument with a partner), or when we feel a sense of grievance or even regret (according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, excessive regret can be just as well connected to the dysfunction of one of the body’s systems as any other negative and suppressed emotion).

We live in a world overflowing with notifications, messages, and information in general, where our body unconsciously reacts to many of them as stressors, which although they energize and motivate us to activity, at the same time also cut small pieces from our stress reservoir. Mental stress also includes stormy discussions on social networks, quick scrolling on Instagram or even constantly present notifications on the mobile phone. Just think for yourself, what will it do to you when you are eating and suddenly your mobile phone on the table lights up: Shock, dismay, joy?

“Who could be it? Is it your friend? Does someone want to go out? And no hell it’s just another comment from that hater on Instagram, but I’m going to show him the moron!”

Chronic psychological stress

All repressed psychological conflicts and traumas that we carry within us fall into this easy to imagine but hard to define category. These can take the form of bullying, which we experienced in elementary school and never came to terms with it, as well as bullying or sexual harassment at the workplace. Or also in the form of the loss of a loved one or an unresolved conflict with our parents or partner. At the same time, chronic stress can also cause us to be dissatisfied with some aspect of our life for a long time, such as with work, school or a partner.

This also includes not expressing or experiencing stormy emotions (mainly fear, anger, aggression and disappointment), which then tend to accumulate in us, thus filling our stress tank and leading to chronic stress.

Even if the experience of these emotions acts as a strong acute stressor, the impact on health is still smaller than their suppressed form, which then acts as a chronic stressor and can contribute to the formation of cortisol dysregulation.  Illnesses primarily stemming from chronic psychological stress are then referred to as psychosomatic illnesses.

Other psychological stressors also include chronic fear of the future in the form of anxiety, pathological preoccupation with the past in the form of depression or excessive melancholy about things, situations and people of the past.

In general, we can say that chronic psychological stress is caused by emotions that we could not adequately experience at the time of their origin, which may reek of Eastern philosophy, but it has been fairly well documented in psychotherapy over the last 120 years.

And that is why emotions should be experienced and expressed, if possible in a non-pathological and non-destructive form, at the moment of their acute experience. One of the possibilities is also the process of sublimation, when we transform outwardly unacceptable emotions into a more socially friendly activity: For example, we express excessive aggression or anger in high-intensity strength training in the gym.

Acute and chronic physical stress

Acute physical stress includes all the physically demanding activities you do during the day, from running to the tram in the morning, to carrying 30 kg of shopping 2 km home. If you go to a physically demanding job, where you work mostly with your hands, it will be your main source of physical stress (nothing compares to a 12-hour shift in the field).

For the rest of us, the main source will be gym training or other types of regular and demanding physical activities (running, swimming, sports training, combat sports, whatever). It is important to understand that all of them are beneficial to our body to a certain extent. It is their excessive length or intensity in combination with other stressors that make them a significant source of chronic physical stress.

Cortisol dysregulation stemming from excessive training is referred to as overexertion and overtraining.

Stress arising from our lifestyle

One of the main factors that potentiates (amplifies) the perception and negative effects of all other stressors is a hectic lifestyle. That is, life in a hurry, with a minimum of time to stop and enjoy the present moment. By constantly pushing ourselves mentally into an accelerated pace, we consciously keep ourselves in sympathetic mode and pump more and more stress hormones into ourselves non-stop.

The biggest problem then is that we can’t get out of this pace even in the moments when we need it the most, especially during meals: If we maintain a high-stress mode even during meals, i.e. for example, we are in a hurry and we don’t have enough time or rest to eat, we talk during, you are arguing with coworkers about work or with your partner or we are thinking about what we still have to do in the next few hours, thereby reducing our digestive capacity and making it easier for food intolerances to develop resistant adipose tissue.

In addition, according to scientific research, cortisol also increases when eating alone, where, from my point of view, it is not so much about eating alone at the table as rather about eating in isolation in all possible and impossible non-food places (from an abandoned office to a public toilet, to driving in a car). Food should always be connected with some ceremony and if possible organized as a social activity. You should try to eat among people as often as possible.  And when you’re eating alone at home, don’t be shy to watch TV or a series while you eat (with something that will entertain you and not stress you out). The goal is to eat slowly and calmly, and if you can do this by turning off your brain and watching Netflix, it will be better than eating quietly, where you will try to finish your meal as quickly as possible. On the other hand, it should be mentioned that even though eating is a social activity, during the actual act of eating I recommend not talking too much and enjoying the food itself (conscious eating).

The inability to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic mode in the evening after coming home from work is one of the main factors that impairs sleep, where we will talk about the countless positives of quality sleep for cortisol optimization later.

Another factor contributing to cortisol dysregulation in terms of our lifestyle is the lack of macronutrients in food in the form of starvation (when the secretion of cortisol is logically increased as a hormone that releases energy from our reserves), but also reduction diets, when you can eat 6 times a day, but thanks to the caloric deficit you are constantly in a catabolic state when cortisol is chronically elevated.

However, short-term, conscious and voluntary fasting can have a number of health benefits, including increased sensitivity to cortisol, when our body can subsequently produce less of than needed.

The lack of some micronutrients is behind the reduction of our sensitivity to cortisol in the diet, especially magnesium.

On the other hand, an excess of nutrients, especially industrially processed sugars (such as glucose-fructose syrup) and fats (hardened vegetable oils, overburnt fats) and increased consumption of foods rich in antinutrients, such as soy, legumes,  pasteurized milk, and genetically modified wheat. Other foods containing antinutrients (such as barley, rye, oats, rice, eggplant, nuts, and many others) become problematic only with long-term regular consumption, so typical of classic fitness diets, where intolerances to cottage cheese, eggs, whey,  oats, and rice are kinda common. 

By creating sensitivity to a certain antinutrient, on the one hand, the immune system is subsequently over-activated at the level of the small intestine (thus resulting in transferred intolerances and its permeability increases), and more immunosuppressive cortisol is released, which dampens the immune system overall.

Our list of lifestyle factors that pathologically increase cortisol would not be complete without mentioning the abuse of stimulants and, more recently, recreational drugs (primarily among students, but also lawyers, doctors, and other performance-oriented professions):

One of the consequences of cortisol dysregulation are energy fluctuations during the day, which people try to balance by drinking excessive coffee and energy drinks, but which only further deepen their adrenal exhaustion.

The situation is even worse for fitness enthusiasts who, in an effort to get the most epic training possible, consume pre-workout supplements, which often do not differ much in their composition from street meth.

The golden rule is that you should take all stimulants in moderation and only when you feel good and want to increase your performance, not when you are low on energy and need to get back to normal.

Biochemical stress

In addition to all the mental and physical stress and stress stemming from our lifestyle, substances generally referred to as toxins, which mainly include heavy metals, xenoestrogens and biotoxins, lead to an increased release of cortisol, and therefore cortisol dysregulation.

According to the results of current research, 100% of the population in developed countries is contaminated with heavy metals. There is nothing to be surprised about, because their biggest sources are: Exhaust gases, emissions from factories, cigarette smoke, amalgam fillings and vaccines. Trace amounts of tap water as well.

Xenoestrogens are discussed more in the post about estrogens and testosterone.

As biotoxins we refer to viruses and bacteria ranging from those at the GIT level (such as Helicobacter pylori or candida albicans) to those penetrating various body tissues (Herpes virus, chlamydia, toxoplasmosis and others).


As you can see, there are an abundance of stressors in our lives. At the same time, the largest part of them, in the form of psychological stress, is largely self-inflicted, be it intentionally or unintentionally. A hectic lifestyle and contamination with biochemical stress are subsequently added to it. Physical stress is then only a top of the iceberg.

Result? Our adrenal glands are constantly pumping new cortisol and other stress hormones into the body, keeping us in sympathetic dominance mode.

Sympathetic dominance leads to dysregulation of the other hormones discussed before (mainly sex hormones, insulin and thyroid), as well as disruption of other health systems (digestion, immunity, detoxification and neurotransmitter balance), down to the cellular and epigenetic level.

Thanks to this, we can say that an excessive amount of stress is currently the most common cause of the onset of diseases, especially those that Western medicine cannot fully cope with, such as diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, mental illnesses, fatigue syndromes, thyroid disorders and cancer.

In order to feel the negative effects of cortisol dysregulation on ourselves, we don’t have to talk about pathology: First of all, cortisol dysregulation manifests itself as the deposition of resistant fat tissue or resistance to body transformation, reduced performance and/or energy fluctuations during the day, and sleep problems.

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